James Madison Papers

William Ellery and JM to the Committee of Congress at Washington’s Headquarters, 5 May 1780

William Ellery and JM to the Committee of
Congress at Washington’s Headquarters

Printed text (John Sanderson, ed., Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence [2d ed.; 5 vols.; Philadelphia, 1828], I, 388–89). Nothing is said there of its source except that it had “fallen into our hands.” References to the existence of the letter are made in Brant, Madison description begins Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols.; Indianapolis and New York, 1941–61). description ends , I, 90; Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1921–36). description ends , V, 178; and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, XII (1888), 501.

In Congress, May 5th, 1780.

Ye poor devils!1 shivering on the bleak hills of Morris, how we pity you!—Ho! soldier with your canteen; view that poor committee man—see him trembling. Hark!—hear his teeth chatter—unable to support himself under the chilling blasts, which, unclothed and unfed, you have endured with invincible perseverance and fortitude:—see him expiring!—he was nursed under a fervid sun, and exposes himself to your nipping gales to bring you some relief. For the sake of G——d, one drop of whiskey for poor Matthews!

As for ye, sons of the North, ye can get along well enough, especially if ye can find, now and then, a cup of beer and a little New England.

As for our illustrious general, if it were in our choice, for him the rich Madeira should flow in copious streams;—and as for the gallant officers, and faithful brave soldiers under his command, if we had the powers of conversion, we would turn water into wine, the camp should overflow with that exhilarating and invigorating liquor.

The last bottle had been broached.—We addressed congress, and used every argument in our power to induce them to order a couple of pipes to be sent to head-quarters, and told them that the general’s wine was entirely exhausted. They doubted. We informed them that we had received a letter from the committee giving us that information. They still doubted, and desired that the letter might be produced. We delivered it with the utmost reluctance. Upon reading it, congress immediately concluded that any persons who would dare to charge us with niggardliness, and threaten to run congress “d——ly” in debt, must be d——ly drunk, and utterly refused to send any wine to headquarters until you should have returned. We wish you had been more guarded in your expressions.—However, we shall for once stretch our power, and send forward two pipes immediately.—You will be pleased to consider soberly the business you have undertaken, and the expectations of congress, and not drink more than three glasses of wine at dinner, and six at supper; and whenever you write to us, do it before breakfast.

We return your “word to the wise,” and are your’s as you conduct,

W. Ellery,

Js. Madison, Jr.2

1On 13 April 1780 Congress elected Philip Schuyler (N.Y.), John Mathews (S.C.), and Nathaniel Peabody (N.H.) as a committee to consult with Washington and his principal officers in devising ways to improve and enforce methods of recruiting, paying, and supplying the army (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVI, 362).

2Although both JM and William Ellery (1727–1820) signed this letter, it is probable that the latter was its principal author. It is unlikely that anyone who had been in Congress less than two months and was not a close friend of the members of the Committee at Headquarters would write to them in this jocular, informal way. JM’s natural reserve increases the probability that he did not draft the letter. Ellery, on the other hand, was a veteran of four years’ service in the Congress and doubtless was well acquainted with the committee members.

The content of the letter reflects the circumstances existing in the spring of 1780. Ellery and JM, the two congressional members of the Board of Admiralty, were addressing the committee on a subject of keen interest to the Board and important personages at army headquarters—the disposal of wine and other liquors from captured vessels. On 2 May 1780 Congress adopted the Board of Admiralty’s draft of a code of instructions for observance by each master of a privateer. The fifth of these instructions warned him against “selling, spoiling, wasting or diminishing the same [a captured vessel and its cargo], or breaking the bulk thereof, nor suffering any such thing to be done” (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVI, 407–8).

The out-letters of the Board frequently urged the continental agents at the port cities either to sell their prize cargoes for the public interest or to forward them to Philadelphia for disposal by the Board (Charles O. Paullin, ed., Out-Letters of Board of Admiralty, II, 182–83, 198). These agents, the Board of Admiralty, and members of Congress, however, were adept at requisitioning choice wine for private purposes, often with the honorable intention of rewarding those who labored in the patriot cause. Washington was the recipient of such a favor on 13 May 1780, when he acknowledged to the Board of Admiralty that he had just received two pipes of Madeira and had been favored with two others during the previous winter (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1931–44). description ends , XVIII, 352).

Although the Ellery-JM letter suggests that a communication from the committee to the Board of Admiralty about the scarcity of liquor at headquarters had been laid before Congress, no message of this kind, or mention of such a message, has been found in the Papers of the Continental Congress or in its printed journal. “New England,” in the letter’s second paragraph, was often used as a synonym of rum.

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